A moment to mourn the lost art of punditry

September 21, 2004|By Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

HERE IS A personal list of eminent American pundits: Walter Lippmann, James Reston, Vermont Royster, Joe and Stewart Alsop, Philip Geyelin and Meg Greenfield. I knew them all rather well except for Mr. Lippmann, and all, alas, are now dead. You would probably be hard put to identify them, a sobering reminder of how fleeting journalistic eminence can be.

For personal reasons, I must add the names of three Baltimoreans. Both H. L. Mencken (who needs no introduction) and Gerald W. Johnson were great Sun writers, and Mr. Johnson, a North Carolinian, preceded me by some decades as an editorialist at the Greensboro Daily News. My father greatly admired Mr. Johnson's writing and that familial enthusiasm rubbed off on me. Then, there was Murray Kempton, a magical stylist at the old New York Post and, like the others, an influential journalistic presence in my salad days.

My list is arbitrary and partial, and obviously excludes many distinguished commentators. But the quality of my list may suggest that there is quite a bit more to the word pundit than its casual use implies. The term is of Sanskrit origin and designates a learned Brahmin sage. It entered English usage more than three centuries ago and now loosely describes anyone who comments on the news.

But there are pundits and there are pundits, and as in all callings, distinction is elusive. Only two of the tribe in modern times, so far as I can recall, have been sufficiently recognizable to even a sophisticated reading public to figure in New Yorker cartoons, the ultimate status test. One is my friend and contemporary, George Will. The other is Mr. Lippmann. I forget now how Mr. Will made the cut, but in the Lippmann cartoon one lady is saying to another: "I don't know what I think. I haven't read Lippmann today."

The joke is mainly on those who try to tell others what to think - a conceit that I borrowed for the title of my little memoir. What Mr. Lippmann, Mr. Will and the Alsops had in common was a solid foundation in history and its instructive examples, literature and the other arts, classical political and legal thought (an underrated item of equipment these days) and the ability to mobilize their thoughts in concise and elegant English. Obviously, learning in itself doesn't confer good sense or wisdom. But it is the sine qua non of high punditry.

How fares the trade today?

There are excellent specialized columnists (David Broder, Robert Novak and E. J. Dionne, for example) who are well wired into the political world. There are distinguished legal specialists such as Anthony Lewis, the best of all writers on judicial affairs. And others. But there are also many huffing and puffing windbags (Rush Limbaugh, for instance) who emote rather than argue and who cater to prejudice and preconception. No one would accuse them of learning, and that alone is a disqualification.

It has now been a long 40 years since President Dwight Eisenhower backhandedly signified the influence of punditry. Speaking to the GOP convention that overthrew the Eastern establishment and nominated Barry Goldwater, Mr. Eisenhower advised his audience to ignore "sensation-seeking" columnists.

The supposed menace of punditry still crops up in political speeches when a whipping boy is needed, but no one believes punditry is still scary enough today to warrant a warning from a former president.

The main reasons are obvious: The channels of political discourse today are overwhelmingly electronic, and the license to comment and interpret, once by ironclad journalistic rule the monopoly of pundits, is constantly usurped now by reporters - especially on television - who tint their reportage with subtle editorializing. Our politics are impressionistic and "iconic" (image-driven in the sense popularized by the great media critic Marshall McLuhan), and we resemble the prisoners of illusion in Plato's cave who see only the flickering shadows of reality. In this environment, a sequential argument is challenging.

I say this sadly, being as sure as ever that our dangerous and complicated world demands the reflection and sober second thought that print alone can provide. But as I write, it is distinctly possible that Doonesbury, Saturday Night Live and MTV are larger influences on American politics than the weightiest commentary.

As the old Roman pundits used to say: Sic transit gloria mundi.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in North Carolina and Washington, is the author of Telling Others What to Think.

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